Thursday, May 3, 2012


Stories about air born witches have intrigued the world for a long time. Even
though there is little evidence that broomstick flying ever took place, the eery consistency of the stories of broomstick flying is too persistent to ignore it. So what was it with broomsticks?
    In many cases, historic records-mostly of courtcases, leave us a quite precise description of the way witches were perceived to be operating their wicked or evil magic on the rest of society in the Middle Ages.
    In England, witchcraft was outlawed in legal act in 1542 and 1736, but the laws did not forid flying. Probably because the legal profession did not believe it a possibility. But there are still many accounts of witches having been seen leaving one place only to turn up several miles away without passing by on the road.
    A linked belief was that witches knew far too much about other people's business, reporting secrets they could not have known or overhearing conversations from far off, says Shantell Powell, who runs a research site on the issue call shanmonster.com.
Often the accounts of witches' ability to conduct supernatural acts were made by the people in their immediate environment. Historians say that the persons telling the court what they believed they'd witnessed in very many cases shows that they clearly misunderstood some happenings and that in as many cases gross exaggeration was employed to make stories fit.
    Yet the many misgivings revealed by the old historic records do not necessarily mean that the actual accusation themselves were never based on any truth whatsoever.
"The broomstick flying can be accounted for when the form of early mound-dwellings is taken into consideration", says Margaret Alic Murray, author of "The Witch Cult in Western Europe", an extensive work not only of witch trials but also a well documented study of the beliefs of ancient witch organisations.
    Murray believes that savage European tribes tended to maintain elaborate taboos connected with the door that can be linked to witches' preferred means of departure through windows and chimneys. She also says that the broom was connected to fertility rites, an issue that of course creates the necessary hype in that it is intricately mysterious easily explaining any links with older women.
    For their extent to which broomstick flying stories are part of may European, North American, Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries' folklore, the number of direct confessions or testimonial account of broomstick flying is very small, Murray writes in her research. One eye witness account historically recorded is made by a certain Julian Cox, a woman who in 1664 testified that one evening about a mile from her house, she saw riding towards her three persons on as many "broom-staves." The three were flying at a height of one and a half yards from the ground, she said.


    Another documented account is known as the New England witches and dates back to 1692. Two selfprofessed witches including a Mary Osgood, confessed to riding on a pole and being carried through the air to five-mile pond and back again. Wonder where to? Why, pray, a witches meeting of course.
    Other stories reveal even juicier details. There's even one detailing a flight accident. Not only did the two of the witches named in this documented story independently of each other confess to being carried through the air by the Devil, but both confirmed that they experienced a crash because one of their broomsticks broke. One witch apparently hung about her fellow colegue's neck for a while and then dragged both of them down. They were injured and one of them was bed ridden for months afterwards.
    If the possibly quite strange body position that broomstick flying was likely to have required would have been viewed with utmost suspicion at the time, the punishment of witches might have mimicked such bizarre bodily positioning. Many accounts reveal that the preferred punishment for suspicion of witchcraft (which often ended in death) was a water ordeal in which a person was tied with his right thumb to the left big toe and the left thumb to the right big toe and then thrown in the water. If the person sank, they were considered innocent, but if they somehow kept floating, they could end up being killed. The test would be conducted not by the masses (something that happened in many other circumstances, when hoards of people would turn against a person suspected of being a witch, usually after an incident) but by a few high placed people, in England usually the minister of the parish and other highly regarded persons.
    There are some scientific explanations for the act of flying on a broomstick or "tree riding" as the activity is known in historic records too. Witches were said to fly through the window or up a chimney. Murray's study documents that one of the earliest cases on record of stick-riding does not definitely state that the witch flew through the air they way you still read about in fairy tales or Harry Potter stories. She cites the case of Lady Alice Kyteler. Historic texts reveal that a pipe with ointment was found in this lady's closet, apparently for the use of greasing a stick "upon the which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed". Similar accounts are found elsewhere in the U.K. and the wording is also quite close to the way the stick-riding of Arab witches is described.
    The potion stories are most believable and scientifically correct. Historic records of confessions of witches also include other means of flying, including simple sticks, pitchforks, poles, faggots, shovels, flying goats, heads of strange animals, cats, bats and humans transformed into animals.
    Scientists say that the recipes for potions or unguents that had been given to the witches by no one less than the Devil himself, are sufficient proof to explain the phenomenon. Apparently, there are the natural herbs mixed together to form the secret ingredients for the "flying" ointments that were said to be applied to the broomsticks, which are really rather phallic, include parsley, water of aconite, poplar leaves, and soot, sweet flag, cinquefoil, bat's blood, deadly night shade, and oil and baby's fat.
    Scientist say that its the mixing together of these ingredients and their effect that likely created the flying stories. Because if you mix up these goodies, you are sure to end up with a pretty hefty poison. "These prescriptions show that the society of witches had a very creditable knowledge of the art of poisoning: aconite and deadly nightshade or belladonna are two of the three most poisonous plants growing freely in Europe", say Murray.

    She adds that it is also very likely that hemlock might have been used by oldern day witches, who might have referred to it as persil, which by lots of other practitioners is often erroneously taken to be parsley. But even so, they'd already be pretty scarily close to creating rather poisonous substances. "Aconite was one of the best-known poisons in ancient times; indeed it was so extensively used by professional poisoners in
Rome during the Empire that a law was passed making its cultivation a capital offence. Aconite root contains about .4 percent of alkaloid and one-fifteenth of a grain of the alkaloid is a lethal dose:, say Murray.
    If adiministered, the drug is not immediately similar to recreational drugs, yet it slows you heartbeat or makes it irregular and can kill you. If belladonna is added however, the effects are likely to be more druglike, creating delirious consciousness. Far most poisonous of the ingredients is hemlock, which contains alkaloid, only an imperceptible amount of which causes irrvocable death.
    There are other explanations too for the flying sensations experienced by people who were more often than not identified by others as witches, say Powell. Before 1750, a peasant's diet consisted mainly of dark bread, which when moulded often lead to ergot poisoning. "Bread with just a 2% content of ergot, is pink and can cause ergot poisoning, which leads to hallucinations and muscle cramps, dry gangrene, and even death", say Powell. It is a known fact that you can even create LSD from ergot.
A man in London used several of the herbal ingredients and later wrote this of his experience "The unguent was rubbed on the pulse points of the hands and feet, after 5 minutes, a great feeling of tiredness and coldness overcame me and I lay down, my breathing slowed and I began to feel a bit panicky that I would die, however I convinced myself that if I did go into respiratory collapse or heart failure the instructions I had left with a friend who was attending me would enable him to provide artificial respiration and call an ambulance. My understanding of time became impossible so I could not decide how long my experiences lasted. Eventually I stopped being fearful and my mind seemed to be becoming detached from its normal state, there was still a feeling of coldness then I seemed to be floating upwards. I found myself soaring above the rooftops of London and my body was no longer human it had become amorphous like a giant squid, with its tentacles streaming behind it. With a little concentration I could change my body into virtually any shape I so desired. I seemed to be heading West and eventually came to a hillside, there I met a number of other people who informed me that the meeting place was not on this world but in the stars. I immediately shot into the sky towards a very bright star, I was not alone and as I flew towards the star many others were with me, our bodies seemed to melt into each other and I remember intense sensations of pleasure running up and down my body, which at the same was not my body but everyones, it's difficult to describe. Eventually I came to an enormous hall and walked upon its cold floor towards a flight of steps, either side of the hall were enormous pillars that stretched up so high I could not see a ceiling. As I came to the top of the steps I saw a hooded figure of a woman, she looked at me though her face was hidden by the hood. I suddenly felt an incredible sensation of power emanating from the woman and I became very frightened. The woman began to remove her hood and through fear I averted my gaze, a voice in my head told me to look up, I did and the face of the woman shone so brightly it hurt, not just my eyes but my whole body. I then remember a sensation of falling and cannot remember anything else".
    The use of aconite might have also have had similar effects. Irregular action of the heart in a person falling asleep produces the well-known sensation of suddenly falling through space. If it was then combined with a delirifacient like belladonna the sensation of flying could have been very possible.

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